Article. Song Hooryeong
Photo Credit. SM Entertainment

SHINee member KEY refers to himself and his fans as Captain Freak and his Little Freaks, respectively. “I wasn’t normal when I was young, either,” KEY says in an interview with ELLE. “I think that’s what made me who I am.” He gave himself the name Freak, creating an inimitable identity, and setting off on a path that diverged from those taken by all others. Now in his 16th year as an idol, his success can be chalked up to progressively building on his style while never straying from what makes KEY, KEY. The SHINee member became a regular panelist on the incredibly popular shows Amazing Saturday (tvN) and Home Alone (MBC), all the while reaching new heights of musical output as both a member of a group and on his own, most recently with the releases of SHINee’s eighth studio album, HARD, and KEY’s second mini album, Good & Great. It seems he may have already lived up to the promise he made his Little Freaks back in 2014 when he said, “luv u always and we’re gonna rock this world!” Here’s a look at everything that makes KEY so exquisite and impassioned, and how consistently talented he is no matter what direction he’s taking. 


Back in 2018, KEY summed up his philosophy toward everything he does in a video for JAYKEEOUT: “The strength I think I have is that I only do things that fit me.”  In the ninth episode of Nothing Much Prepared, when host Lee Youngji asks KEY how he’s managed to stay relevant in the entertainment industry when new faces are popping up all the time, he answers, “Our spots are not spots that require someone to fill up later on,” adding that, “Although there may be someone funnier than me,” the important thing is that he “tried to [make others laugh] in a way that no one can mimic.” On Amazing Saturday, KEY knows the choreography to nearly every song they hear when playing games, earning him the nickname Choreopedia. He’s also the mastermind behind some of the show’s signatures like the ending fairy game and the phrases “guaranteed screen time” and “self-subtitling.” He’s so important to the show that he’s now known as the Human Amazing Saturday. What makes KEY so uniquely qualified for the role is his years spent on so many different stages. Not to mention he’s so well prepared that, in the case of when he was to appear on JAYKEEOUT, he went into the meeting with a slideshow he had personally prepared to show his thoughts on the direction the video should take and what he can bring to the table. Just as he discovered the key to the entertainment business in the form of his one-of-a-kind stage persona, KEY chooses to differentiate himself through the way he packages his music. “Album-wise, it’s retro again but obviously should be different,” he says in a video where he describes the packaging of Killer, one of three albums in his so-called retro trilogy. “Also, since it’s similar, I have to make sure that people don’t say, ‘How long will he keep doing that?’ Also, it has to be pretty. It will have to be something you want to buy once you see it.” What KEY’s emphasizing is that, while they all fall under the retro aesthetic, the packaging for all the albums—BAD LOVE looks like the packaging for a toy, Gasoline an old video tape, Killer a limited-edition game box—plays on variations of the retro theme. Compare this to Good & Great, where KEY opted for an office concept in the packaging, complete with cover letters, reports, and ID cards. KEY has ultimately founded his own domain over which to rule—one that spans across his musical and other entertainment ambitions. That place is called KEYLAND, and it’s also the name of his solo concert series. And KEYLAND is expanding its borders every day as its leader tries new, exciting things. It’s like it says in the description of his third solo concert, G.O.A.T. IN THE KEYLAND: “Always with a new visage, the place that always feels new but familiar, familiar but new.”

KEY the creative director

When it came time to prove his worth, the first thing KEY turned to was fashion. “I love clothes,” KEY recalls in a talk he gives on Street Messenger, a show that aired on JTBC. “So I started buying clothes like crazy. People around me told me I was crazy, but I knew it was worth it for me.” KEY has naturally grown to become a very competent creative director, taking an active role in SHINee’s visual direction, including acting as director of costume design for the group’s concerts (ELLE) and contributing to the style choices used in the music video for the group’s 2015 song “View” (Milanonna). When choreographer Kany worked on the dance for “Gasoline,” the single off KEY’s second studio album, she described the idol as “a full artist that knows exactly what he wants” (Inside the Gasoline). Directing his own solo albums, KEY is specific in his direction when it comes to the overall concept, the packaging, and every little detail therein. “I see telling my own story as being about using what’s in my head as reference because I don’t want to have a fabricated life,” he explains in ELLE. As such, he says, everything in his retro trilogy was inspired by things he personally likes. The way KEY explains it, BAD LOVE uses “retro space imagery,” Gasoline is like a “retro B movie,” and Killer is meant to evoke feelings of “board games, game consoles, and 1990s anime.” He’s also quite detailed in filming his music videos, as when he wants the prop foods in one video to “be set up so that they look inedible but still pretty and neat.” KEY describes the album photos for BAD LOVE, a major turning point in his solo efforts, as a “collection of the things I’ve loved in the past” and the culmination of thinking “about that concept for 14 years.” The idol is an expert when it comes to rooting through his imagination for inspiration and turning it into albums that reflect his personal tastes. In his own words, “I still believe in the power of visualizing.

KEY the marketer

Asked what he would be doing if he hadn’t become an artist, KEY once said, “I think I would have been good at marketing. I think it would have suited my interests” (KEY is Good & Great). In truth, KEY turned out to be a great marketer anyway. When he does his own makeup for his appearance on the YouTube series BamBam Home, KEY explains, “People also prefer me being natural. If you look at it the other way around, it became another selling point. I also showed my daily life on Home Alone.” He clearly has a good understanding of his public image and takes that into considering when deciding how to present himself. He created, for example, a whole new paradigm for “ending fairy” moments that conclude performances when he returned to performing on music shows in 2021, with such amusing endings as pretending to wipe under his eye with a cotton swab and holding up a paper that reads, “Minho’s on in a sec.” In an interview with Marie Claire, KEY says he tries things like that because “the line between the different kinds of media platforms is blurring,” explaining how “there are probably more people seeing short GIFs that spread across social media than people who actually watch the music shows live.” He also stresses that, to keep SHINee going a long time, they need to “be good at reading what people want” given that the “content that can show off our music could change anytime.” The change KEY caused in the ending fairy concept may seem like a butterfly effect born out of throwaway gags, but in reality it stems from the idol’s agile response to changes in the media landscape, as when he became an early adopter of Instagram in 2013 before it took off in Korea. When talking about following trends on a mini-episode of Just an Excuse, he explains, “I don’t think it has to be that way just because everyone does it,” but he goes on to talk about how, in his line of work, it’s important to keep up with what’s popular to some extent just to “stay in the field,” providing the example of how well “HARD” did, which is also when SHINee really started to do dance challenges. “Anything that’s popular now, I’ll watch it, try eating it, or go check it out,” KEY says during an interview on JTBC Newsroom. For him, “it’s important” to experience things for himself and take note of what he learns so he can “work those into” his creations and “draw people in.” In other words, his ability to always “stay in the field” stems from his constant vigilance.

What’s in KEY’s life?

“It would be fun to show who I am and show how I live my life,” KEY says in the JAYKEEOUT video from back in 2018. “I never tried to teach someone with the backgrounds I had in life.” But, as the interviewer points out, “that unintentionally comforted people.” KEY reveals more about his way of life in an ELLE interview from earlier this year: “I think the time has come that the lifestyle image I’ve built is having an impact.” Indeed, KEY became a trendsetter in such areas as cooking and daily routines, with people starting to pay attention to the things he eats, wears, and uses. KEY’s recipes on Home Alone, including chive cream cheese, bagna càuda, and lemon dill butter, consistently make waves. His eponymous soju and black tea mix, in particular, blew up on social media, leading to soju giant Jinro collaborating with the artist to release a special black tea-flavored tonic water. He’s even been featured on news spots that look at him growing plants on his terrace to explain trends like how to get the most out of green onions and the joys of keeping plants as pets. He’s also a pioneer in the arena of “things that people get curious about regardless of gender just because they see someone else using or doing it.” In addition, the way of life KEY promotes on Home Alone is unique, considerate, and healthy. He’s seen sharing with neighbors the kimchi he makes using his hand-grown green onions, preparing pickles and cream cheese to take on a mountain hike, and getting out some wax paper so he can press leaves and make bookmarks. KEY’s everyday life is vibrant and fun—enough to fill up a whole YouTube channel with cooking, studying, sports, and travel.

I’m good I’m great

“There are people who found their passion for their work, but would there really be anyone who is always satisfied and happy? … I wholeheartedly cheer for you and I really hope you don’t put yourself down in any situation.” Talking about his song “Good & Great,” KEY says, “Whether you’re a freelancer, full-time worker, or a contract worker, I wanted to devote this song to all of those out there working” (KEY is Good & Great). He repeats the lyrics, “I love it, I’m epic,” and, “OK, doing good / I’m pulling through” several times throughout the song, acting as words of encouragement to all the workers out there, while also functioning as “the magic words” he repeats to himself “all day, a dozen times and more.” “It’s like I have my own silly magic words I recite all the time in life to keep myself going,” he says in an interview with W Korea, referring to his oft-used line, “I’m sick of this.” “When I say the magic words, people can relate to it, and that can change the whole atmosphere, too.” The same can be said about “I’m good I’m great,” “Drift away on a parachute out that window / Dreaming of an escape from reality,” and, “Sometimes just wanna vanish,” all of which are like their own magic words that help to soothe the singer and put him in a better state of mind. It’s like when he says “itd be better if I could pat my head” in his choreography instead. In an interview with CINE21, KEY notes that, while he used to say, “Let’s debut, let’s reach number one, let’s win awards, let’s get cell phones,” now he says to himself, “There’s an important shoot this week—let’s get it!” He also explains elsewhere how, “If I’m in a situation where I can release albums and I can keep releasing them—if I can work like that—then I think that’s what I call success.” When asked on JTBC Newsroom how he hopes people will remember him, KEY answers, “I think it’s important to always be consistent and have endurance.” And so, as he sings, though he “wanted this so bad / Chose this path, but don’t mean it’s easy,” he finds that, nevertheless, “On days when I’m having a hard time / Again, believe that I’m chosen.” KEY has experienced 15 years of ups and downs in his work, and that mix of happiness and sadness has had a nurturing effect on his mind—a decade-and-a-half process that he has total faith in.